Review: Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Mask (plus Special Event Masking Tips)

My latest delivery from Sulwhasoo US caused me extreme mixed emotions. The 20th anniversary limited edition First Care Activating Serum EX made me feel like my son last Christmas when his cool uncle got him the Cozmo.

The newly launched First Care Activating Masks, on the other hand, gave me a shiver of mingled excitement and dread not unlike what a cave diver might experience when facing an underwater abyss. They might be amazing. Marinating my face for the better part of an hour in the mask version of the First Care Activating Serum EX is one of my dreams. Or the masks might, like the Innerise Complete Masks I reviewed last year, be a very bad time. I’d need courage to find out.

The products discussed in this review were provided at my request by a Fifty Shades of Snail sponsor. Affiliate links are marked with an asterisk(*).

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Mask Review

I first learned of the First Care Activating Mask when I was asking Sulwhasoo US about the 20th anniversary First Care Activating Serum EX. They mentioned the masks; I reared up like a cobra and struck. And that is why we are here today.

Purpose: Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Mask is a moisturizing sheet mask that claims to revitalize skin, improve radiance, and boost the effects of products applied after use of the mask.

Best suited for: All skin types, but especially dry, dull, and/or aging skin.

Do not use if: You are sensitive to fragrance or anything else in the ingredients list.

When and how to use: According to the brand’s directions, these masks should be used immediately after cleansing and before any other skincare products. In my personal experience, they are just as effective when placed where I usually use sheet masks, after the serum steps and before the moisturizer step of my routine. I prefer using them after my serums.

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Mask English directions

Tear open the mask pouch and remove the mask and backing. Unfold and apply the smooth fabric side to skin. Use the tabs on the mesh backing to peel the backing off. Adjust fit. Wear for 10-20 minutes (as directed on the box) or for as long as you want (as directed by me). After removing mask, pat in any excess essence, then proceed with whatever steps of your skincare routine you still need.

(Need guidance on putting the steps of your routine in order? This post might help!)

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Mask ingredients: Water, glycyrrhiza uralensis (licorice) root extract, propanediol, butylene glycol, glycerin, betaine, camellia sinensis leaf extract, paeonia albiflora root extract, nelumbo nucifera flower extract, polygonatum officinale rhizome/root extract, lilium candidum bulb extract, honey, ophiopogon japonicus root extract, juglans regia (walnut) seed extract, portulaca oleracea extract, zizyphus jujuba fruit extract, biosaccharide gum-1, natto gum, PEG/PPG-17/6 copolymer, 1,2-hexanediol, glyceryl polymethacrylate, bis-PEG-18 methyl ether dimethyl silane, carbomer, PEG-60 hydrogenated castor oil, dextrin, theobroma cacao (cocoa) extract, xanthan gum, ethylhexylglycerin, tromethamine, disodium EDTA, phenoxyethanol, fragrance

CosDNA analysis

Notable ingredients and comparison to Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX: The bulk of the ingredients in the First Care Activating Mask essence are the same as the First Care Activating Serum EX. The mask essence contains every extract in the First Care Activating Serum EX. Incidentally, this makes the First Care Activating Mask a good test for whether you’ll like the First Care Activating Serum. If your skin responds well to one, it’ll likely enjoy the other, and vice versa.

I’m particularly excited about the position of glycyrrhiza uralensis (licorice) root extract all the way up in the second spot in the ingredients list. Licorice root extract has known anti-inflammatory and melanin-inhibitory properties, making it a promising skin brightener. Most sheet masks have a basic humectant like glycerin or humectant/penetration enhancer like butylene glycol at that position in the ingredients. Seeing licorice root extract so high up gives me a good feeling about these masks compared to the majority of other, more budget-friendly sheet masks.

The rest of those extracts provide an array of possible anti-inflammatory, anti-aging, moisturizing, brightening, and antioxidant benefits, as is typical of that class of ingredients. While we consumers can never know for sure whether a product uses high-quality, high-potency extracts, my experience with the First Care Activating Serum EX suggests that these products do.

One key difference between the mask essence and the First Care Activating Serum EX is that the mask essence doesn’t contain alcohol. That may make these more attractive to those of you who have a sensitivity or aversion to alcohol in your skincare. The masks also don’t contain chondrus crispus (carrageenan), a common acne trigger.


As I tore open my first First Care Activating Mask pouch, I thought to myself, A $12 sheet mask–what could the material be? The website describes it as a “unique micro net radiance sheet.” The packaging declares it 100% natural cotton with an “elastic micro-form structure.” I knew not to expect hydrogel (and not to dread biocellulose). Microfiber? Visions of an advanced, ultra-fancy microfiber mask sheet danced in my head.

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Mask opened
What could it beeeee?

Turns out, the First Care Activating Mask material is, as far as I can tell, sturdy, straightforward cotton, albeit with a cool-looking mesh backing to make unfolding easier.

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Mask backing

Kind of a bummer. The results would have to be spectacular to make up for the lack of plush and clingy microfiber. I love microfiber.

I do appreciate the tabs at the temples of the mesh backing. Peeling a backing off of a mask that’s already been applied can be tricky; the tabs make it easy.

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Mask backing tabs

The mask essence itself is a clear brownish liquid that’s almost thick enough to qualify as a gel. Right out of the pouch and for a few minutes on the face, before the scent fades or stops registering to the nose, it smells exactly like the First Care Activating Serum. That means that for me, it smells exactly like heaven. And there’s plenty of it saturating the mask sheet.

The first time I used this mask, I applied it as directed, immediately after cleansing. The mask sheet clings well to my face (for cotton–it’s still no microfiber or hydrogel or even T-beauty silk) and stays moist for a good long time. I wore it for over 45 minutes and could have gone at least 15 more minutes without it drying out. When I removed the mask, my face was still quite damp. The essence took some vigorous patting before soaking in all the way. Next time, I’m going to add wrist weights so I can really take advantage of that arm workout.

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Mask instructions
10-20 minutes? LOLOLOL. At $12/mask, these babies are staying on as long as I can stand them.

Like the First Care Activating Serum EX, the First Care Activating Mask claims boosting effects, but while it may indeed boost product effects, I can’t say I experienced any absorption boost from it the way I do from the serum. Using it before the rest of my routine didn’t block absorption, but it didn’t speed it up as I’d expected. That may be due to the lack of alcohol, which improves product penetration.

It may also simply be because the First Care Activating Mask is extremely moisturizing, more so than the vast majority of clear-essence sheet masks I’ve tried. The thickness of the essence should have tipped me off. This is one of those masks that could substitute for an entire toner-essence-serum routine for most skin types.

Korean beauty skincare routine with Sulwhasoo
It’s how I’ll be okay with this ultra-simple routine.

Since the mask turned out to not boost absorption of subsequent skincare products, I tried it in the usual mask slot in my routine the next night. Why not sandwich the rest of my products between the First Care Activating Serum EX and the First Care Activating Mask? I can’t think of a single reason that would be a bad idea.

Again, I wore the mask for nearly an hour before removing it and had plenty of essence left to pat in afterwards. I followed it up with my moisturizer as usual.

The First Care Activating Mask isn’t one of those masks that shows its full effects immediately after use. Upon removal both times, I found my skin highly moisturized, plump and glowy. Great news, but not new news in the world of sheet masks. My skin felt subtly warmer the rest of the evening on both nights–not in an “ACK IT’S BURNING GET IT OFF ME” way, but in a pleasant, healthy-feeling way. And then came the mornings.

It’s been two days in a row that I’ve gotten up, cleansed, and then spent a minute just stroking my face and staring happily in the mirror. (Which, just to clarify, I normally don’t do.) Like the First Care Activating Serum EX, the First Care Activating Masks seem to stimulate healthy circulation in my skin, bringing a subtle rosy glow to my cheeks. Meanwhile, they calm any redness I have right down to nothing, leaving my face brighter and more even-toned all over.

The First Care Activating Masks also have a visible effect on the texture of my skin. It feels silky smooth and looks firmer and denser somehow, more refined and resilient. There’s an overall glow there that’s usually not present immediately after washing.

After we met up in NYC last month, my good friend Tracy from Fanserviced-B tweeted something really, really nice about my skin.

I usually don’t see it, but on the mornings after using these masks, I totally do. My point, besides wanting to draw attention to that compliment again because it’s the best skin compliment ever, is that this mask gives me no-foundation days. I just use my clearest sunscreen and enjoy the effects.

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Mask value analysis

Still. $12 a mask? Can any sheet mask be worth $12 a mask?

The mask instructions say to use these once or twice a week, meaning you’d go through a box or more each month. For most budgets, that’s not feasible. That’s what My Beauty Diary* and Tosowoong* masks are for. (Although if it is in your budget to use them so frequently, enjoy.)

In my opinion, for most of us, the First Care Activating Masks belong to the category of special occasion masks, not just for their price but for their effects. They’re the mask to pull out the night before an event you want to look your absolute best for. Or, if you have a Really Super Special Event coming up, the mask to use regularly for several nights beforehand.

In that context, I’d consider the First Care Activating Mask totally worth it for those who have the budget to grab a box. I don’t think I’m going to be able to hoard and ignore the couple I have left out of this box, but I’ll be grabbing another on my own dime before my next big trip or occasion. The payoff will be faster and more reliable than investing the same chunk of change in a new serum or cream.

And because I’ve just specified that these are great for special events, I want to finish up by talking a little about making the most out of special-occasion sheet masking!

Making the most out of special-occasion sheet masking

1. Patch testing is especially critical if you’re doing your skincare with an eye towards a special event. As great as a product might work for a blogger who’s not-you, you really want to make sure that same product will play well with your skin. So patch test at least a few days before you first use the product. In fact, patch test over the course of several days if you can. To patch test, apply some of the product to an inconspicuous part of your face and see what happens. Have your A-Sol or other spot treatment ready in case what happens is not good.

Tip: You can patch test mask essence by snipping off a corner of the mask pouch, squeezing out a little essence, and resealing the pouch with tape or a binder clip. I recommend storing the opened mask in the refrigerator until use.

2. Make sure to prepare your skin for maximum absorption by removing any loose dead skin cells. If your regular exfoliation game could use a boost, use a gentle scrub after cleansing, before using the mask.

3. Seal in the goodness with a moisturizer afterwards, and get a good night’s sleep!

Conclusion: These masks took me on a rollercoaster of emotions. Fear that they would suck, excitement upon discovery of their similarity to the First Care Activating EX, disappointment at the mask sheet material, and, ultimately, total delight when I saw their next-day results. Can a $12 cotton sheet mask really be worth it? I wouldn’t use these every day because I am made out of pork buns and skincare, not money, but I know exactly which masks I’ll turn to when I have a good reason to want that super great glow.

Rating: 4.6/5

Rating scale:

1 – This should be taken off the market, or this failed at its one primary job.

2 – Caused me some problems or doesn’t work very well; would not buy again.

3 – Meh. Neither great nor bad.

4 – Pretty good. Would buy again unless I find something better.

5 – I’ll never be in the market for a replacement unless this one is discontinued.

Where can I buy Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Mask?

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Mask is available in a box of 5 at Sulwhasoo US* and comes with a limited edition makeup pouch while supplies last. If you’re considering buying from Sulwhasoo US, make sure to check my right-hand sidebar (scroll down to the bottom on mobile) for my coupon code and current gift, which stack with their regular GWPs. Also make sure to check out their Mother’s Day offers*.

But why can’t it be microfiber?

Check out more of my Sulwhasoo reviews here! Or if you’re looking for more affordable sheet masks, you may find what you want in my Sheet Masks category.


6 thoughts on “Review: Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Mask (plus Special Event Masking Tips)

  1. Hello! I am so happy you have tried this! I have been using the Sulwhasoo 1st care activating serum for some 3 years now, and although I take brief trials on other serums, I keep coming back to this one. I’ve taken a liking to Benton’s snail bee essence, and UNIK’s propolis as alternates for specific needs, but Sulwhasoo keeps delivering.
    I have to agree that the quality of the botanical extracts is superior. I’ve been gifted with a few sets of ginseng/Hanbang skincare products(Sooryehan, The Empress, Jahwangsu), but they don’t do as much as Sulwhasoo. If you ever use traditional Chinese medicine herbs prescribed by a TCM doctor, the quality is of great importance to the doctor also. I would not be surprised if Sulwhasoo has contracts with certain farms or companies that supply its’ raw materials, to keep variability of the strength/quality of the extracts to a minimum. I remember taking a long walk through the Gyeongdong Market in Seoul with a Korean friend, and the scents of the plants, herbs and roots were incredibly pungent. Of course, I adored it and tried to talk to the vendors, tried tastes, and tried to tell them ( thank god for translate apps!) that ginseng grows in my state, much to the annoyance of my friend. I think there’s a lot we have yet to discover about Hanbang, and I wonder about healing and maintaining my skin from the inside out at times with Hanbang herbs.
    In the meantime, I will also go marinate my face in Sulwhasoo.


  2. Mask vs serum – which one should be a sulwhasoo newbies first investment? )assuming samples give good results)


  3. Hi! I was just wondering how the Snowise Cleansing Foam is doing for you? I know Snow White and the Asian Pear was disappointed that the reformulation made it a pH of 6 and not 5 and I was wondering if that was too high or not, since Skin and Tonics mentioned anything 6 and above being potentially harmful. I love luxury cleansers and want to go low pH (I think my current one is a 7, or at least the AB Reddit thinks so, I have yet to test it myself) but I just wanted to make sure 6 wasn’t still too high, especially given the price point. Thanks!


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